What My Disordered Eating Reveals about the Brain
“Why am I doing this? This is really disgusting and unhealthy.” This is what I asked myself after every episode of binging and purging.
As much as I hated my eating disorder and wanted to get over it, I wanted to keep doing it. I heard this addictive voice in my head that told me that I had to do it. If I didn’t, my life would be boring, unfulfilling, and meaningless.
I finally recovered from my disordered eating after many years. It cost me a lot of time and caused a lot of anxiety. But it also helped me understand the brain and how it works. In this article, I’m going to share some of those lessons.
The Brain Consists of Multiple Parts
The brain isn’t a unified whole; it consists of various components fighting for control of the throne. This is why sometimes fighting bad habits, resisting temptation, and saying “no” feels like an epic struggle. It’s because you’re experiencing different impulses from different parts of the brain, and each part wants to win.
The brain started with one neuron a billion years ago, then turned into a more sophisticated apparatus. Like laying new carpet on top of old one, the new parts of the brain started to evolve on existing structures.
I divide the brain into three parts: the rational brain, the emotional brain, and the primitive brain. The primitive brain is responsible for basic functions like breathing and eating. The emotional brain produces feelings of fear, doubt, anxiety, and stress. Then there is the rational brain, which is what you do when you take a test and plan for the future.
Willpower Has Limits
Do you remember the marshmallow test? Walter Mischel wanted to see if children who could resist temptation (the marshmallow) in childhood did better in terms of income, stability, health, marriage, and satisfaction later in life. He did.
People who have more self-control and can delay gratification have better outcomes in terms of income and satisfaction with life. Willpower matters less when it comes to eating disorders.
The truth is, I didn’t need willpower. What I needed was a strong reason to quit. Darren Hardy at Success Magazine calls this “why-power.” Instead of squeezing your fists to create the habits that you want, remember the reason why you’re doing it. Willpower will not get you through the hard moments but a strong “why” will.
The Brain Can Change the Way It Fires
The number of neuronal connections (or pathways) in the brain are astonishing. Some of these pathways are stronger than others, while others are weaker. For the compulsive eater, overeater, or binge eater, the pathway to binge is really fast and strong. Imagine a 12-lane highway or a fiber optic cable delivering 1 gigabyte of data every second.
Every time I binged, overeat, or gave into an urge, I only reinforced that pathway and made it stronger. Imagine a rope with thousands of strands. After hundreds of episodes, I had added hundreds of strands to the rope. That’s why it was so hard to stop.
But the opposite is true, too. Every time I said “no” to the craving or urge, I made that pathway weaker. Over time and with consistency, that pathway eventually died, and my cravings and urges became weaker, and then eventually non-existent.
Change Begins Today
I had this fantasy that once I moved to a better location, a new home, or got a better job, then everything would be okay. But the brain always found some way to thwart those efforts and sabotage me. The brain is a tricky thing and finds innovative ways to make us do things against our long-term interests.
It didn’t matter which state I lived in, which home I lived in, how warm it was outside or what my job was, I always had this problem.
Eventually, I realized that I was the problem and I was the solution. Nothing or nobody was going to change it for me. I had to change myself and I had to do it now. Circumstances would never be ideal enough. I had to do the heavy lifting.
It’s convenient and comforting to assume that an external force will solve the problem. Change always begins today and it starts with you.
One positive of my experience with eating disorders is that it gave me personal experience with the brain, and it allowed me to experience first-hand what the science says about the brain. Change is hard because the brain has multiple parts competing for control, and it has pathways that control our behavior. Only “why” power can help us during those tough moments. Change is hard, but it’s not impossible, and the best time to start is today.
Burciaga, K. (2020). What My Disordered Eating Reveals about the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-my-eating-disorders-reveals-about-the-brain/